Dhammakaya Movement

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For the Dhammakaya temple in Patumthani, see Wat Phra Dhammakaya.

The Dhammakaya Movement, Dhammakaya tradition or Vijja Dhammakaya is a Thai Buddhist tradition which was started by Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro in the early 20th century.[1] It is connected to several temples which refer back to Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen in Bangkok for their ancestry. The movement practices Dhammakaya meditation, a form of meditation which scholars have linked to the Yogavacara tradition. Central to the movement is the idea that Dhammakaya meditation was the method through which the Buddha became enlightened, a method which was forgotten but has been revived by Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro.


Scholars have theorized that The Dhammakaya movement has its roots in the Yogavacara tradition (also known as tantric Theravada).[2][3][4] The movement was started by Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro in the early twentieth century.[1] The movement is connected to several temples which refer back to Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen in Bangkok for their ancestry. Luang Por Dhammajayo and Luang Por Dattajivo, the current abbot and vice-abbot of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, were students of Maechi (nun) Chandra Khonnokyoong. She in turn was a student of Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro, the meditation master who developed Dhammakaya meditation and the abbot of Wat Paknam. Other temples, such as Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram, also have their roots in Wat Paknam.[5] After discovering the Dhammakaya meditation approach, Luang Pu Sodh first taught it to others at Wat Bangpla, Bang Len District, Nakhon Pathom.[6] When Luang Pu Sodh was given his first position as abbot at Wat Paknam, Dhammakaya meditation has been associated with this temple ever since. Since 1959, Dhammakaya meditation has been taught by Luang Pu Sodh's students at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen, Wat Phra Dhammakaya, Wat Luang Por Sodh Dhammakayaram in Amphoe Damnoen Saduak District, Ratchaburi Province, and at Wat Rajorasaram in Bang Khun Thian District, Bangkok as well as the respective branches of these temples. Apart from these temples, there are also other centers that practice in the tradition of Luang Pu Sodh.[7]

Notable Temples[edit]

Newell has pointed out that the term Dhammakaya Movement is problematic, because it has been used "without distinguishing between the various temples practising dhammakaya meditation and Wat Dhammakaya [sic] itself. (...) There are considerable differences in style, practice and structure of all the temples". She prefers to use the term Dhammakaya temples.[8] She is quoted on this by McDaniel, but he nevertheless uses Dhammakaya Movement.[9] Crosby, on the other hand, uses Dhammakaya network.[10] Thus, scholars have often pointed out the differences and even some dissension among the temples,[11][2][12] but it has also been noted that the relation with Somdet Chuang Varapunno and Wat Phra Dhammakaya has been good.[13] Somdet Chuang has also taken part in establishing Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram.[14]

Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen[edit]

Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen (Thai: วัดปากน้ำภาษีเจริญ) is a royal wat located in Phasi Charoen district, Bangkok, at the Chao Phraya River.[15] Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen is the temple where Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro used to be the abbot, and still is known for its meditation lessons.[1][16] The temple underwent a major change during the period that Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro became the temple's abbot, from a temple with only thirteen monks that was abandoned, to a prosperous center of education and meditation practice. In 2008, it housed two hundred to four hundred monks, eighty to ninety samanera (young novices) and two hundred to three hundred maechis (nuns). Currently, the temple's abbot is Somdet Chuang Varapunno, was the acting Supreme Patriarch (Sangharaja) of Thai Buddhism.[2] In 2015, he was proposed as the new Supreme Patriarch by the Supreme Sangha Council, but as of March 2016, the appointment was stalled by the junta, which cited objections by several influential former leaders of the 2014 coup d'état.[17]

Wat Phra Dhammakaya[edit]

Main article: Wat Phra Dhammakaya

Wat Phra Dhammakaya is located in Pathum Thani, north of Bangkok. It was founded by Maechi Chandra Khonnokyoong and Luang Por Dhammajayo. It is the temple that is most well-known in the Dhammakaya Movement because of its huge size and following, its numerous activities and also its controversies. The temple is popular among the Bangkok middle class, and organizes many training programs. The temple emphasizes merit-making through meditation, giving and volunteering.[18] As of 2007, the temple's worldwide following was estimated at one million practitioners.[19] The community living at Wat Phra Dhammakaya numbered more than a thousand monks and novices, and hundreds of full-time lay employees.[20] The temple emphasizes the revival of traditional Buddhist values, but does so through modern methods and technology.[21][22] The temple emphasizes personal transformation, expressed through its slogan "World Peace through Inner Peace".[23] The temple offers English language retreats and ordinations.[24][25][26]

Initially, the temple was founded as a meditation center, after Maechi Chandra and the just ordained monk Luang Por Dhammajayo could no longer accommodate the rising number of participants in their activities at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen. The center became an official temple in 1977.[27][28] The temple grew exponentially during the 1980s, when the temple's training programs became widely known among the urban middle class.[27][29] Wat Phra Dhammakaya expanded its area and the building of a huge stupa (pagoda) was started.[30] During the period of the Asian economical crisis, however, the temple became subject to criticism as Luang Por Dhammajayo was charged with embezzlement and removed from his office as abbot. In 2006, he was cleared of these charges and he was restored as abbot.[31] The temple grew further and became known for its activities in education, promotion of ethics, and scholarship projects.[32][33][34] Under the 2014 military junta, however, the abbot and the temple were put under scrutiny again and Luang Por Dhammajayo was accused of receiving stolen money through the donations of a supporter. As of 2016, he had not acknowledged the charges yet, as an arrest for him was issued.[35]

Wat Phra Dhammakaya emphasizes a culture of making merit through doing good deeds and meditation, as well as an ethical outlook on life.[36][37][38] The temple promotes a community of kalyanamittas ('good friends') to accomplish such a culture.[39][40] Although the temple emphasizes traditional Buddhist values, modern methods of propagation are used, such as a satellite television station and a distance-learning university, as well as modern management methods.[41][42][43] In its large temple complex, the temple houses several monuments and memorials, and in its construction designs traditional Buddhist concepts are given modern forms, as the temple envisions itself as a global spiritual center.[44][45][23]

Wat Rajorasaram[edit]

Wat Rajorasaram (or for short, Wat Rajaoros; literally 'the temple of the King's son') originates from the Ayutthaya period. Originally called Wat Chomthong, it was a small temple mostly visited by local orchard workers. It later became a royal temple figured in the history of the Chakri dynasty when Prince Rama III resided and held a ceremony there to prepare for an attack during the Burmese–Siamese Wars. After having spent a while at the temple preparing, the attack did not happen. Nevertheless, Rama III repaid his gratitude to the temple by renovating it from 1817 to 1831,[46][47][48] work which he supervised himself.[49] When the renovations were finished, he dedicated the temple to his father Rama II, who renamed the temple "Wat Rajorasaram".[50] After Rama III's death, part of his ashes were kept at the temple.[51] The temple is often described as "the temple of King Rama III", citing his stay there during the Burmese–Siamese Wars, and the subsequent construction he started there.[50] However, in reality Rama III grew up in the area of Wat Chomthong, not in the palace, and was therefore familiar with the temple from his childhood onward.[51]

Following the preferences of Rama III, the temple has an architecture that shows much Chinese influence, which was unusual for a Thai temple at the time.[52][47][53] Rama III had an interest in Chinese culture due to his successful trade contacts with the Chinese.[50] Traditional texts about Thai medicine and massage have been carved in the temple's walls.[54][55], and they were protected by copyright by the Ministry of Public Health in 2009.[56] There is a monastic school at the temple, as well as a secular state school which is supported by the temple. The latter is one of the last state schools in Thailand still located in a Buddhist temple.[57][58]

The current abbot is Luang Por Thongdi Suratejo, who has been ordained in Wat Paknam, and has been abbot at Wat Rajoros since 1982.[59][60] He is well-known in Thailand for his encyclopedias and books, which he publishes under his honorary names.[61] In an interview with newspaper The Nation in 1997, he expressed concern regarding the problem of lack of education among monks in Thailand, complaining that bright people do not ordain.[62]

Apart from traditional yearly ceremonies, there is weekly Dhammakaya meditation at the temple, there are training programs for schools, merit release ceremonies, training for teaching monks, and a regular merit transfer ceremony to Rama III.[59]

Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram[edit]

Somdet Chuang Varapunno from Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen presiding over a ceremony.

In 1982, Luang Por Sermchai Jayamangalo and Phra Khru Bart Yanathiro established the Buddhabhavana Vijja Dhammakaya Institute,[63][64] partly in response to Wat Phra Dhammakaya.[65] In 1991, the institute was changed into a temple.[14] It is located in Ratchaburi Province, west of Bangkok, and is currently led by Luang Por Sermchai. Luang Por Sermchai was formerly a lay meditation teacher at Wat Paknam, as well as a researcher and lecturer.[66][67] Many of the temple's activities are done in cooperation with Wat Saket.[68] Luang Por Sermchai teaches regularly to government departments, companies, and other temples.[69] In 2004, Luang Por Sermchai made headlines when he criticized the government's policy on legalizing gambling during a preaching on a radio program. After some members of the government responded displeased, a screening process for preaching on the radio was established.[70][71] Luang Por Sermchai defended the radio broadcast, stating that his criticism referred to society in general, not just the government.[69]

In 2006, there were seventy monks and thirty-three novices at the temple.[66] Phra Khru Bart was a western monk who organized exchange student programs and gave meditation instruction and retreats in English language. English instruction is still available, though Phra Khru Bart has now passed away.[26][67] In Thai language, the temple offers retreats, monastic ordination programs, and study retreats for families.[72] The temple also runs its own school with Pali and Dhamma studies.[14]

Apart from an Uposatha hall, the temple also has a memorial hall in honor of Luang Pu Sodh. In 2006, the temple started building a stupa (mound-like shaped monument). The stupa will be four storeys high, and will contain meditation rooms, Buddha images, and relics.[14][73] As of 2014, the stupa was expected to be finished in two years.[74]


Revivalist school[edit]

Despite having been included in the controversial,[75] global Fundamentalism Project studies,[76] many scholars do not regard the movement as a fundamentalistic movement, but rather as a movement with revivalist characteristics. Whether the movement is a new movement is a matter of debate; Wat Phra Dhammakaya, for one, has specifically stated not to want to start a new fraternity (nikaya).[77][78] Central to the movement is the idea that Dhammakaya meditation was the method through which the Buddha became enlightened, a method which was forgotten but has been revived by Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro. This method is called Vijja Dhammakaya.[79][80][81]

There are multiple temples in the tradition which have expressed opposition to traditional magical rituals, fortune telling and giving lottery numbers.[82][83][84] According to the biography by Wat Phra Dhammakaya, Luang Pu Sodh held similar attitudes. He did, however, often heal people through meditation, and Luang Pu Sodh's amulets were—and are still—widely venerated for their powers.[85] The movement does not oppose miracles that are connected with the practice of meditation.[86]

Tantric Theravada[edit]

Main article: Tantric Theravada

Since the 2000s, new evidence has been brought forward though that Luang Pu Sodh's approach might originate from Yogavacara tradition (also known as tantric Theravada).[2][87][88] The Dhammakaya meditation method managed to survive modernization pressures to reform during the twentieth century C.E. and scholars have theorized that there is an ancestry to be found in common with Yogavacara.[87][89][90] However, Luang Pu Sodh did prohibit magical practices at Wat Paknam, practices which are associated with the Yogavacara tradition.[85] In one biography, he is quoted as saying that magic was not part of the core of the Buddha's teaching.[91] As of 2007, there was not yet enough evidence to draw any conclusions about the relation between Yogavacara and Dhammakaya.[92]

Dhammakaya meditation and True Self[edit]

Meditation is at the most important practice of all major temples in the Dhammakaya Movement. It is the concept of Dhammakaya what makes the movement stand out from other forms of Theravada Buddhism,[93][94] as the movement believes that all meditation methods lead to the attainment of the Dhammakaya, and this is the only way to Nirvana.[95] According to the Dhammakaya Movement, the Buddha made the discovery that nirvana is nothing less than the true Self. The movement calls this true self the Dhammakaya, the spiritual essence.[96][97] The Movement believes that this essence of the Buddha and Nirvana exist as a literal reality within each individual.[98][99][100] The not-self teaching is considered the method to let go what is not the self, to attain the true self.[101]

According to Paul Williams, in some respects the teachings of the Dhammakaya Movement resemble the Buddha-nature and Trikaya doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism. He sees the Dhammakaya Movement as having developed independently of the Mahayana tathagatagarbha tradition, but as achieving very similar results in their understanding of Buddhism.[102] According to Williams,

[Dhammakaya] meditations involve the realization, when the mind reaches its purest state, of an unconditioned "Dhamma Body" (dhammakaya) in the form of a luminous, radiant and clear Buddha figure free of all defilements and situated within the body of the practitioner. Nirvana is the true Self, and this is also the dhammakaya." [103]

The bulk of Thai Theravada Buddhism rejects this teaching and insists upon non-self as a universal fact. In particular, the Thai scholar-monk Luang Por Payutto has written much to oppose the views of the Dhammakaya Movement.[104] As against this, Luang Por Sermchai argues that it tends to be scholars who hold the view of absolute non-self, rather than Buddhist meditation practitioners. Also, only the compounded and conditioned is not-self—not nirvana. Williams summarises Luang Por Sermchai's views (here referred to by his former honorific name Phra Rajyanvisith), and adds his own comment at the end:

[Scholars] incline towards a not-Self perspective. But only scholars hold that view. By way of contrast, Phra Rajyanvisith mentions in particular the realizations of several distinguished forest hermit monks. Moreover, he argues, impermanence, suffering and not-Self go together. Anything which is not-Self is also impermanent and suffering. But, it is argued, nirvana is not suffering, nor is it impermanent. It is not possible to have something which is permanent, not suffering (i.e. is happiness) and yet for it still to be not-Self. Hence it is not not-Self either. It is thus (true, or transcendental) Self. [...] These ways of reading Buddhism in terms of a true Self certainly seem to have been congenial in the East Asian environment, and hence flourished in that context where for complex reasons Mahayana too found a ready home."[105]

The Dhammakaya Movement has responded in different ways to the debate of self and not-self. Apart from Luang Por Sermchai, Wat Phra Dhammakaya's assistant-abbot Luang phi Thanavuddho wrote a book about the topic in response to critics.[18][106] Nevertheless, the movement generally seems not much interested in the discussion. Followers are more concerned how Dhammakaya meditation improves their mind.[107] Apart from the true self, the Dhammakaya Movement often uses other positive terms to describe Nirvana as well. Scott notes that the Dhammakaya Movement often explains Nirvana as being the supreme happiness, and argues that this may explain why the practice of Dhammakaya meditation is so popular.[108]

Methods of propagation[edit]

Luang Por Thongdi Suratejo from Wat Rajorasarama.

Luang Pu Sodh introduced Dhammakaya meditation, which is the core of the Dhammakaya movement. But besides the technique of meditation itself, the methods through which Luang Pu Sodh taught have also been passed on to the main temples in the movement. The movement has an active style of propagation.[109] Teaching meditation in a group, teaching meditation during ceremonies, teaching meditation simultaneously to monastics and lay people, and teaching one main meditation method to all are features which can be found throughout the movement.[110][111][112]

Newell speculates that Luang Pu Sodh was the person who set up the mae chi community at Wat Paknam,[113] which is currently one of the largest mae chi communities in Thailand.[114] Although Luang Pu Sodh encouraged women to become mae chis, mae chis did have to spend quite some time doing domestic activities, more so than monks. This orientation echoes in Wat Phra Dhammakaya's approach to female spirituality, praising Mae Chi Chandra as an example of a meditation master, but at the same time not supporting the Bhikkhuni ordination movement.[113]

Besides Wat Paknam's attitudes with regard to female spirituality, Wat Paknam's international orientation also became part of its heritage.[115] The temple ordained several monks coming from the United Kingdom,[116] and maintained relations with Japanese Buddhists.[117] Currently, Wat Paknam has branch centers in the United States, Japan and New Zealand.[118] This international orientation was also continued through the work of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, which, as of 2010, had thirty to fifty international centers,[119][120] and through the work of Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram, which has two branch centers in Malaysia.[121] Of all Thai Buddhist temples and movements, the Dhammakaya movement has an international presence that is one of the strongest.[122]

A characteristics that is also found both in Wat Paknam and other temples in Luang Pu Sodh's tradition, is its emphasis on lifelong ordination.[123]

The first generation of students[edit]

Maechi Thongsuk Samdaengpan[edit]

Maechi Chandra Konnokyoong.

Maechi Thongsuk (1900–1963) was a nun well-known for her meditation teaching. She was born on 1 August 1900 at Baan Saphan Lueang, Bangrak District, Bangkok. She was the third born to her father Rom and mother Wan. She was separated from her parents at an early age, being adopted by her uncle and aunt instead. She had no formal education and was illiterate. She married a surgeon at Chulalongkorn Hospital. They had two children together before the untimely death of her husband - from which time onwards, Thongsuk Samdaengpan had to support herself and her children working as a salesperson.[124]

In 1930, Thongsuk Samdaengpan started to study meditation at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen under the instruction of Luang Pu Sodh. As a laywoman, and later as a maechi, she taught high-profile supporters of Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen, such as that of Liap Sikanchananand. It was at Liap's house that Maechi Thongsuk met Chandra Khonnokyoong, who she taught Dhammakaya meditation. After the two stayed for one month at Wat Paknam, they both ordained as maechis. Maechi Thongsuk travelled around Thailand to spread the Dhamma and teach Dhammakaya Meditation according to the policy of Luang Pu Sodh. Maechi Thongsuk was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1960, and died because of this on 3 February 1963 at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen. She was aged sixty-three, having been a maechi for twenty-five years.[125]

Maechi Chandra Khonnokyoong[edit]

Main article: Chandra Khonnokyoong

Maechi Chandra (1909–2000) became strongly interested in meditation when she was still a child, after she was cursed by her drunken father. After he died, she wished to reconcile with him through contacting him in the afterlife. In 1935, she went to Bangkok to work and find a way to meet Luang Pu Sodh. After she met Maechi Thongsuk and learnt meditation from her, she ordained at Wat Paknam.[126][127] She later became a prominent meditation student of Luang Pu Sodh. After Luang Pu Sodh's death, she became instrumental in introducing Dhammakaya meditation to Luang Por Dhammajayo and Luang Por Dattajivo, with who she later found Wat Phra Dhammakaya.[128][64]


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